Does Your Maple Syrup Taste Like Brioche? Hay? Soy Sauce?

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 15 2013 5:45 AM

Far From the Tree

Why Vermont wants you to use wine descriptors to talk about maple syrup.

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The syrup we had assembled ranged in color from honey to coffee. Lighter syrup, which is prized by sugar-makers for its color and more delicate flavor, comes from sap drawn early in the sugaring season. Late-season syrup is darker thanks to the bacteria, fungi, and yeasts that live in the plumbing that carries sap to the sugarhouse. These organisms break the syrup’s sucrose into fructose and glucose, the latter of which turns dark brown when heated. The palest syrup is labeled “Vermont Fancy.” Then comes the darker “Grade A Medium Amber” and “Grade A Dark Amber,”’ followed by the darkest, “Grade B.” Flavor usually corresponds with color: The darker the color, the stronger the flavor. But it quickly became apparent that was a crude generalization.

We started with the Grade Bs. Wolcott-MacCausland poured a small puddle from a jar into my spoon. It smelled strongly of caramel. I sipped it, willing my taste buds to reach new levels of sensitivity. There was maple, caramel, and something heavier. Chocolate? Molasses? As we worked our way through the Bs, each tasted slightly different. But we were often at a loss for the right word.

I took some comfort from the thought of Molly Costanza-Robinson, an environmental chemist at Middlebury, whom I had talked to before visiting the Wolcott-MacCauslands’ sugarhouse. She had joined Trubek’s maple terroir project, thinking it could spawn fun research for her classes. She, too, struggled during the tasting sessions, but she learned that people can nearly always distinguish between syrups, even if they can’t articulate the difference.

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When I first moved to Vermont, I decided I was a Grade B man. I liked the heavier flavor, which reminded me of a cup of dark-roast coffee. But in the sugarhouse, my first spoonful of Grade A changed my mind. It was almost refreshing. The maple flavor shone more clearly. On the fifth bottle of Grade A, I found my favorite flavor, one I could describe clearly: maple accented by toasted nuts. (My son, now drunk on syrup, tipped his head back, smiled, and declared, ”Toasty. Way toasty.”)

To understand why maple syrups can taste so different, consider this: The flavor we call “maple” turns out to be a jumble of more than 150 chemical compounds. Besides the sugars, there are traces of amino acids and other acids found in wood. Their levels fluctuate as the tree awakens and prepares to grow leaves. In addition to being affected by when it’s collected during the sugaring season, the taste can be tweaked by how long the sap is stored or boiled.

So, where does that leave an aspiring maple connoisseur? Here’s the challenge  Trubek’s group encountered when they tried to get a handle on the terroir of maple: Maple syrup varies so much, it’s hard to know exactly what taste is going to come out of a bottle. If you think wine is tricky to pin down, with its variations from year to year and vineyard to vineyard, consider this: Even syrup with the same grade from the same sugar-maker in the same year can taste different. In maple syrup’s case, embracing terroir, that elusive taste of a place, means accepting that a single place—a single tree, even—will contain a multitude of flavors. While I’d found a favorite, I could go crazy trying to find it again. Better to accept that maple syrup is unpredictable, and enjoy the differences from bottle to bottle.

You might think that unpredictability could make the tasting guide a handy tool for discerning consumers trying to decipher the unique flavor of each bottle of syrup. But so far, there’s not much evidence sugar-makers are promoting the guide. That’s partly because many still sell a lot of their syrup to companies that blend syrups from all over to make a product with a relatively uniform taste from bottle to bottle. (Most maple syrup sold in grocery stores is blended.) Sugar-makers have also spent years training their palates to conform to the government-sanctioned grading system, not to detect whether a syrup has lingering notes of grapefruit.

But a few sugar-makers have begun targeting a more gourmet-minded clientele (and charging a few dollars more per pint) with labels that say the syrup is organic or comes from a single source. At least one is considering marketing a premium “black label” edition of what he judges to be the best syrup of the season. There must be some marketing value in the Vermont name, because Vermont-made syrups all prominently declare their provenance. But they don’t dwell on the personalities of particular vintages. How could they, when maple syrup’s flavor is so fickle?

Still, after my tasting session I’m planning to start keeping a few bottles of syrup from different local makers in my fridge. And when the mood strikes, I’ll get a spoon and see what I can taste. Vanilla? Coffee? Electronics?

Warren Cornwall is a freelance journalist based in Bellingham, Wash. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, and the Seattle Times.

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